At Excel Music in New Tampa, the rooms are cozy and the lessons have always been intimate, as children and adults file in each day to work on honing their musical skills with professional instructors.
But, cozy and intimate don’t work well with Covid-19, so like so many small business owners, John and Sheri Thrasher had to make some drastic adjustments, primarily going virtual with their lessons. It wasn’t easy, but they have survived.
Now, in their 15th year of running Excel Music, which is located in the Cory Lake Isles Professional Center on Cross Creek Blvd., the Thrashers are hopeful things are getting back to the old normal.
“We are starting out by just having all instruments, except voice and wind instruments,” John says. “We’ll start with that and see how comfortable everyone is with it and how things continue to proceed over the summer.”
However, they continue to proceed cautiously, John adds. The school, whose physical building has been closed since March 2020, is hoping to be fully open by the end of this month or in August.
“Like most of the school systems around the country, we’ll want to be back to full in-person lessons by the fall,” he says. “We’ve been maybe accused of being a little overcautious, but that’s always been my nature. (Safety) has always been really important. I just didn’t want our school being responsible for bad things happening to anybody.”
Fortunately, John says, Excel Music’s virtual lessons have been a success. Although often confused with online lessons, which are more like videos that students follow along with, the virtual lessons have kept Excel’s staff of music teachers — all of whom are either university trained (many with Master of Music degrees) or with at least 10 years of study and performing experience — engaged with those receiving lessons.
John says the staff adapted during the pandemic and has now mastered the art of virtual lessons.
“The results we’re seeing from students and hearing from teachers is that the kids are still progressing very well,” he says.
Bill Effingham has been teaching guitar at Excel Music since it opened. He says he would never have considered virtual lessons prior to the pandemic, but now sees it as an additional tool. He says the Thrashers were able to make the transition seamless.
“Considering that everything happened so quickly and last minute and that it was a totally new thing, John and Sheri were right on top of things,” Bill says. “Obviously, I was a little panicky that first week, but I think by week 2 or 3 we were totally transitioned over. They did a great job with it.”
While they may not have the same effectiveness of hands-on, in-person lessons, virtual lessons won’t be completely abandoned by Excel Music once students return to the classrooms. While some parents declined to even try the virtual route, it did offer some convenience to others who, for example, travel during the summer. John estimates that students taking a month off require two months to get back to where they were before.
“It’s been one of these weird things that’s helped us become more fleet of foot,” John says. “We can now adjust more quickly to what students and parents want. That’s probably been the one advantage of us jumping head-first into the virtual lessons.”
However, John says that everyone at Excel is eager to get the classrooms back open.
“We have some wonderful parents and students that stuck it out, and we’re looking forward to getting back to what we’ve always done,” he says.
A Variety Of Programs & Ages
The music school has always offered lessons in voice and practically every instrument, with piano, violin, guitar and drums being the most popular, although quite a few students study brass and woodwind instruments, too — including trumpet, tuba, saxophone and clarinet.
While Excel’s choir program remains on hold for now, John hopes to get the popular pre-school program up and running again this summer. John says the music school has had students as young as 5 years old and as old as the 86-year-old trumpet player who once took lessons at Excel.
Both John and Sheri have strong backgrounds in music, giving them perspective on the value of learning an instrument.
John, who continues to play in a band with friends, was the drummer for country singer Mickey Gilley for many years, which gave him the opportunity to perform on TV on “The Joan Rivers Show,” “Solid Gold” and “Hee-Haw,” as well as on telethons hosted by Lou Rawls and Jerry Lewis. He also played at such venues as the White House and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, TN.
In the 1990s, John and Sheri had success together with a band of their own in Japan called Tz, where he says they sold tens of thousands of CDs.
It was in Japan, where there is a culture that reveres teachers, that led them to start thinking about something like Excel Music, which they opened in 2006.
“There’s so much data about how great studying music is for your brain for spatial learning and big-picture thinking,” John explains. “There are always studies coming out saying that because music is a whole brain activity, when kids learn music, their math and other school skills improve, too.”
Bill is one of two teachers who have been with Excel Music since it opened in 2006, and a number of others have stayed with the Thrashers for five, six, or eight years.
“We definitely have stability,” John says. “We’ve been doing this for a long time.”
Like several instructors at Excel Music, Bill teaches and plays gigs. He is in a band called Lorelei On The Rocks (check them out at loreleirocks.com) and hopes to instill in his students the same love of playing that he has had for more than four decades.
“In the beginning, they memorize notes and learn the mechanics,” Bill says. “But, when they start to ‘hear’ the music and a little light bulb goes off and you know they got it, that’s what I love about teaching.”
Soon, John hopes lots of little light bulbs will go off in the heads of local music students who return for in-person lessons.
“We’re just eager to get back to what we usually offer,” John says. “This has been really, really challenging for everybody. “It’s been a trying and learning experience, but like anything that is hard, you grow from it, you learn from it and you’ll be better for it.”
Excel Music, located at 10353 Cross Creek Blvd., Suite I, is still open for virtual lessons only right now. For more information, visit ExcelMusic.org or call (813) 991-1177.